Advocate pushes for legal homeless camp in Nevada County | TheUnion.com

Advocate pushes for legal homeless camp in Nevada County

Christopher Rosacker
Staff Writer

Photo for The Union by John Hart

A Nevada City man is making headway on the creation of a legal homeless encampment in Nevada County.

But he still has many hurdles to clear.

Home builder Greg Zaller envisions a self-governed camp that would act as a transitional safe haven for individuals as they seek services to move them out of homelessness.

Much of Zaller's inspiration comes from Placerville's Hangtown Haven, where approximately 30 people live on private land that was granted a 90-day special-use permit in August, reported the Placerville Mountain Democrat newspaper.

“The concept is to give them the support to work their way out (of homelessness).”


— Greg Zaller, home builder

Hangtown Haven has portable toilets, wash basins and even a place to cook, Zaller said. It is run by a community council composed of camp residents who craft and enforce camp rules.

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Pets, children, fights, theft, undesignated fires, public intoxication and drugs are all prohibited, the Mountain Democrat reported.

"The concept is to give them the support to work their way out (of homelessness). They have to be in a positive environment," Zaller said.

"Think about if you were camped out in the woods and you are really hiding. How can you possibly get your act together and get out of that situation if you are struggling every day just to stay alive?"

Zaller has the tentative support of an owner of a piece of private property that has water and sewer lines, who is willing to give the camp a try, barring legal and liability hurdles.

The Union is withholding the name of the property owner and its location at the owner's request.

Nevada County has dozens of unsanctioned homeless camps speckled throughout its Sierra Nevada foothill forests, many on the outskirts of Grass Valley and Nevada City, said Cindy Maple, executive director of Hospitality House, the area's largest homeless advocacy group and shelter.

With more than 500 homeless people in Nevada County, those camps vary in size and organization, Maple said.

Some of them have as many as 30 residents, Maple said. Some are environmental nightmares. Others are self-governed and banish troublemakers.

Without a shelter of its own, Hospitality House has coordinated with area churches to provide a place for homeless people to sleep for nine months a year since its inception in 2005.

Hospitality House is also building a 6,500-square-foot facility at 1262 Sutton Way in Grass Valley that will provide overnight sleeping quarters for as many as 54 guests. It will allow Hospitality House to switch to a year-round model.

But even at full capacity, the organization can't help all of Nevada County's homeless, Maple said.

Hospitality House also has a no-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol or even pets. Zaller said he wants any local camp to be sober as well.

"Even if everybody was willing or able to stay at Hospitality House, we don't have the capacity to take everyone because there are so many homeless people," Maple said.

"When you consider that challenge, then we do have a legitimate challenge that needs a solution."

If Zaller is able to find a government agency to grant a use permit and mitigate liability for the property owner, Maple said one challenge of the potential camp would be keeping it structured.

Hangtown Haven is overseen by Hangtown Haven Inc., not the city of Placerville, Zaller said.

Anticipating an uphill battle of public perception, Zaller said that an approved homeless camp would give a municipality's police force a viable option for homeless offenders.

"This would allow them to justify enforcement, where they can see someone and tell them to go to the camp and get cleaned up," Zaller said.

"Right now, there isn't even a choice with enforcement."

To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email crosacker@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4236.

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